The Ancient Relative – or the pursuit of perfection

I wrote the short story Ancient Relative quite some time ago now, thinking about how different from us our far future descendants might become, to cope with the world we are currently creating.

The Ancient Relative

“Rinse away, please.” 

The final patient of the day gobbed a mixture of filling, rotten tooth and spit into the silver funnel, to be whooshed away with a gurgle.

Alan’s back ached after nine hours of picking, drilling and filling. His head ached from endlessly giving his new assistant the same instructions. At last he was done for the day and for the week. It was Friday – and his wife Maria was away for the weekend.

Maria Turner-Smythe was considered by some to be pushing forward the frontiers of the paranormal, and by others to be completely dotty.  A year ago, she had been elected Chairperson of WUU (Women of the Universe Unite), a radical group dedicated to linking all females regardless of the constraints of race, space or time. Since then, she had spent so much time on the Internet or at UFO conferences that Alan rarely saw her. This weekend was a climactic event for Maria. She was to give the keynote address at the WUU Annual Conference.

…That left him alone to play with his cactus collection. Filling tiny pots with the right mixture of soil and sand. Lovingly writing on the little labels. And best of all, sprinkling the tiny seeds on top, each with its tiny spark of miraculous life. To Alan, they were his children. The large greenhouse, originally constructed for Maria to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and other necessities was now filled with an alien landscape of cacti that resembled everything from small green hedgehogs to enormous grey-haired phalluses, and the floor was thick with sand.

The greenhouse was Alan’s home planet.

As Alan scrubbed flowerpots in the kitchen sink, his thoughts turned to his wife. He could not understand Maria’s obsession with WUU. Could it be possibly to do with him? But he was rational and in no way obsessive. She had become increasingly obsessive about the whole subject of UFOs and had been convinced by fellow WUU members that THEY were already here, controlling the media and advertising.  Maria explained to him that the only way of avoiding intergalactic warfare was for females of every intelligent race in the universe to get together and do their networking. 

Alan wondered whether he should at least try to get involved in WUU so that they could share an interest.  Could men really participate in networking? Cactuses had failed as a form of communication between him and Maria. She made it very clear that she did not like extracting spines from her fingers, and the holiday to the Peruvian desert had not been a success. 

Pleasantly exhausted from another two hours of sieving and mixing soils, he sat on the patio supping a pint of beer and reading Cactus Grower’s Weekly, but at the back of his mind was a niggling thought. What could be so interesting about the possibility of life on other planets, when there were so many different types of Cactus on Earth?  If only Maria could try to understand the importance of his interests.

He sighed and went indoors. 

The kitchen could wait to the morrow. Its work surfaces were covered in the dirtiest flowerpots, destined for the dishwasher. Soil and sand seemed to be everywhere.  He smiled at the prospect of potting up his babies, then climbed the stairs wearily, a Cactus Keepers’ Annual under his arm.

As usual, he donned his striped cotton pyjamas, buttoned to the neck, pushed the lank strands of hair across his shining scalp, and of course, brushed his teeth properly for five minutes. Once in bed, he blew the dandruff from his glasses and placed them on top of the annual before snuggling under his duvet. His last thought before falling asleep was the hope that aliens might be half-human and half-cactus, thus unifying his interests with those of his wife.

At about 3 a.m., Alan awoke with a terrible pain in the chest.

His first thought was that he was having a heart attack, but he could not move his arms either. As his eyes adjusted to the light, his thinning hair tried to stand on end. There was someone sitting on him.  He worked his dry mouth and a strangled croak came out. The stranger made a dry rasping noise like a wood-boring insect. Alan could now see that it was indeed a huge insect of some kind. Very thin (but quite heavy), shiny like moulded plastic. Hairy too. The head was a smooth oval shape like a hazelnut, with a hooked mouth and bug eyes. It looked like some kind of praying mantis. Alan kicked his legs furiously until two gleaming claws waved into the air and clamped them fast. He relaxed, and to his surprise the creature nodded sagely.

Still holding him, it scuttled off the bed and then let go. Alan floated about one metre in the air, he estimated vaguely. His body started to rotate ever faster and as he span, he could see two streams of silver liquid being jetted over him from the sides of the creature’s head. Eventually he was encased in silver. Rather than being terrified, he felt drowsy and strangely relaxed.

When Alan awoke, he was sitting in what looked like his favourite armchair, but it was located in a room so big that he could not see the ceiling or the walls. There was only a silvery-white glow that faded into the distance. Nearby there was a new greenhouse of breathtaking proportions. He stood up, not noticing that his skinny body was quite naked, and walked over to it. Inside was the biggest collection of cacti he had ever seen, and at least half of the species nearby were unknown.  Te greenhouse seemed to go on endlessly. He walked through it for some time until he came to a white door. He entered and stopped in surprise.

The room was just like his lounge, complete with television and shelves filled with reference books. In front of the television sat a very old man, also naked other than his white beard, which was long enough to hide his genitals.  The old man looked up from reading an ancient cactus manual.

“Welcome, my friend. Do make yourself comfortable. Tea?”

Alan was so astonished that he sat down on the sofa, and was handed a Dresden china cup filled with an aromatic brew of Earl Grey tea.

“I know you like Earl Grey tea, Alan.”

Alan smiled. “Yes, it’s my favourite.  Now, I’m being very calm because I am a dentist, but I don’t think I can continue much longer. Who are you?”

As he spoke, his hand trembled, spilling some of the tea.

“I am Marcus Turner. My son married Wendy Smythe in 1879 thus creating the Turner-Smythe line, so you are my direct descendent, carrying the obsessive potting gene into the future.”

“Okay,” Alan said slowly, and took a sip of tea. “Go on.”

“It’s very simple, really.  The people that live in this city collected me when they were gathering cacti. They thought that I was a natural part of the greenhouse ecosystem, and I suppose I am.”

Alan started to worry. He did not want to take over as the curator of this alien collection.  “So why am I here? I mean, it’s very nice to meet you, Marcus, but…well, you are just like me…”

Marcus shook his woolly head emphatically. “Not very interesting, you mean? You are here for a different purpose, Alan.  You are here because you have something that they need.”

“What?”

The old man smiled. “You have cactus DNA in your body. Didn’t you know?”

Alan recalled the Sci-Fi channel. “Are they going to put something in my brain?”

“Wrong, wrong, wrong!  Alfresia will explain it to you herself. She’ll be right along any minute.”

Alan heard the scaly scratching noise again and shrank back in fear. As the door opened, long black antennae waved in the air. In the strange white light, it did not seem so horrifying.  It was about the size of a human and walked like a human, but the body was as thin as pipe cleaners and seemed to be made of a beetle-like substance, black and shiny. Its shoulders were spiny, its fingers long and thin. It walked up to Alan and held out one of its repulsive claws. Years of etiquette kicked in and he took it then gasped as his fingers were crushed and his arm pumped up and down vigorously.  Then it turned to Marcus and started to speak.

“She says, put this in your ear so you can understand what she is saying,” Marcus translated. He opened his hand and on his palm was a shiny little worm. Alan prodded it doubtfully and it curled into a defensive ball.  He counted to five and placed the worm in his ear. There was a pleasant sensation like warm eardrops, and that was all.

“Alan, can you understand me?”  The voice was distant and tinny, but definitely feminine.

“Yes.  It’s remarkable. What the hell is going on?  I demand to be taken home immediately. You…you…,” he clenched his bony fists in rage.

“Follow me, Alan,” she replied, then hopped up and strode from the room.  He had to walk fast to keep up and did not have time to say goodbye to Marcus.  They entered another long white corridor, and then the spindly insect figure stepped into a room.

When Alan entered, his jaw dropped. It was his dental surgery, complete in almost every detail, including the faded Van Gogh print and the tropical fish.  Alfresia was waiting by the chair and had donned a white coat. Alan wandered forward in a daze and settled into the chair.  The creature leaned over him. She was wearing a surgical mask above which her huge, multi-celled eyes reflected his face a thousand times. She turned and picked up a syringe from the instrument tray.

“Wait- I’m not quite ready for this,” he babbled, and a bead of sweat ran down his face.

“Alan, I am just going to numb your mouth a little bit. I have to take a skin sample and we don’t want it to hurt.” 

Before he could stall her anymore, she injected his gum with surprising skill. “There, not so bad, was it?  Would you like to sit and read a magazine for a few minutes, whilst I prepare for the next stage?” She waved a claw at a chair.

Alan sat, naked, reading a special issue of Cactus Almanac. It contained species that he knew could not come from Earth because of their colours – blue, red and purple. A few minutes later it was time.

“Nice and numb now, Alan?”

“Mmmm.”

He settled back and Alfresia turned with a long, silver blade in her claw. The creature looked at him with her head tilted to one side, and then made a curious grating sound. She moved so quickly that he did not have time to react, and then triumphantly held up a sliver of skin, before dropping it into a small metal container. There was no blood. The implement she used seemed to cauterise as it cut.

“There, that wasn’t so bad, was it, Alan? Would you like to wash out your mouth?”

She held out a cup of purple mouthwash, and he swizzled it then spat into a silver funnel.  She handed him a paper towel.

“Can I go now?”  He was incoherent.

She removed the facemask.

“Alan, try to understand me.  We are on Earth. We are the humans of the distant future and we need your DNA for our survival. We are genetic engineers, modifying our race so we can survive in hostile environments.  That’s why we travel the universe, collecting other cactuses and merging their genes with ours, but it all started with you. The planet has changed a lot, you know.”

He was shocked beyond belief. “You mean…?”

She laughed. “Yes, Alan. Only you can provide us with the essential genetic material. However, we are also interested in your wife.”

“What, you want to take Maria as well?”

Alfresia looked like she might be trying to frown. “Why are males so stupid?” she asked via the earworm. “We are a race of females. We want to join WUU. Tell her that we will visit again soon. Goodbye, Alan.”

Alan felt he was falling and spinning. Streaks of light whizzed past and translucent veils parted and then he stopped. Cautiously he opened an eye and looked around.

“Holy Christ, what the hell are you doing? Look at the state of the kitchen.” Maria sounded equally annoyed and astonished. He was still stark naked, lying on his back on the cushion linoleum floor, and a small worm had just dropped from his ear.

“Maria, thank God it’s you. Thank God.”   Alan sobbed with relief.

She looked at him. “Honestly, Alan, you really need to get out more. Why don’t you look up an ancient relative?”

Meteorite – short story about a life-changing experience

The short story Meteorite was written for a competition rather a long time ago, and did quite well although I lost the certificate.

Meteorite

Max looked at the clouds anxiously.

“Typical.” 

Only an hour ago he had painstakingly pegged quantities of voluminous underwear and bedding onto the washing line in his manicured back garden. Now they would all have to be draped around the inside of the small terraced house, making it untidy. Sighing at life’s hardships, he paused the rail-travel DVD he had been watching, heaved his vast bulk from the armchair and waddled into the garden.

Max lived a solitary fussy life, deriving secret satisfaction from his numerous obsessions, the best of which was cleanliness. The only person he would allow into the house was his twin brother Thomas because he shared many of the same afflictions. Thomas was coming round later that same day and staying for supper. Max knew that he would comment on the laundry drying in the house. He carefully took down and rolled up each pair of socks from the line and placed them in a black bin-liner but when he came to the first of the sheets, he stopped.

“That’s odd. That’s very odd.”

Two round holes had been burnt neatly through the sheet. He peered through one at the tidy house, and made a mental note that the curtains had not been drawn back evenly. Then he noticed that the two holes in the sheet were identical in size, and perfectly round, slightly black around the edge.  They had been burnt. He walked around to the back of the washing line, which was a large rotating frame on a pole. The duvet cover also had two holes burned through it, but these were lower down. Max walked back to the sheet and then lined up the uppermost hole in the sheet with the corresponding one in the duvet. Through the two holes he could see the perfectly mown grass. And something else.

When Max’s twin brother Thomas arrived, Max opened the door in a state of wild excitement. “Thomas, come into the garden. It’s like… a dream come true.”

Thomas followed Max’s equally rotund form through the house to find him waiting next to the washing line with legs and arms spread wide.

“Don’t come any closer,” he said. “They might be dangerous.”

Thomas stopped next to him. “I can’t see anything. What do you mean?” He screwed up his fat face and peered about.

Max pushed the glasses back up his button nose. “Look at the grass and tell me what you can see.”

Thomas looked. “Rocks?” He sounded disappointed at the anticlimax.

Max laughed delightedly and a little crazily. “I’ll give you a clue. Look at the washing.”

Thomas showed signs of frustration; his nose twitched irritably. Something had burned holes in the washing. Hot rocks. Where could they have come from? Volcanoes?  Too far away from England, never mind Woking. Good God, they must be…

“Meteorites.”

Max had hoped to be able to tell him. “Of course they are, Thomas,” he said condescendingly.

The meteorites resembled lumps of coal half-buried in the lawn. Max pulled on his yellow kitchen gloves and knelt down on a newspaper.

“Careful, Max.” 

They had both read the same sci-fi stories as children; meteorites that emitted strange green light bringing dire consequences. Alien bacteria that could change people into vegetables while they slept.

 Max prised the rocks out of the soil with a trowel and dropped them into a salad bowl before carrying them proudly into the kitchen. In a moment of generosity he handed Thomas the magnifying glass. “You look first,” he said.

Thomas bent over the rocks. “Mmm,” he mouthed. He moved the glass around and looked up.

“Well?”

Thomas blinked through his thick glasses. “They’re black, with bits of blue. They look like… well, they’re just rocks.”

“Just? Just? What do you mean, just?” Max hated that word. It was so weak.

He snatched the magnifying glass back, but after a while he had to agree. “Well, they are rocks, but there’s a lot more to it than that, Thomas. These are history-making. They must be three or four billion years old for a start.”

Reverently he placed the bowl containing the meteorites on the window ledge, before preparing lunch, which took them a long time to eat.  They spent an excellent afternoon together researching meteorites on the Internet, joining discussion groups with others around the world who had similar luck. Finally, it was time for Thomas to leave and Max was getting anxious to do his ironing.  At the door, Thomas lingered until Max realised what was going on.

“I don’t think you can have one, Thomas. They are part of the –” he paused, searching for an excuse, “scientific record.”

Max knew he had upset his brother. He watched him waddle down the front path, a lonely bear-like shape in the dusk. Then he locked the front door, and rushed to the kitchen to study the meteorites.

“Oh no. No, no,” he gasped. Thomas.  There was only one rock in the bowl now. Max lowered himself wearily into the chair, the bowl on his lap, and looked at the remaining rock, puzzled. Was it bigger than it had been? A reckless sensation took control and he watched detachedly as one of his plump fingers moved towards the rock and pushed it. The rock felt warm and slightly yielding. Gaining confidence, Max watched his hand enclose the rock and then he was looking at it resting in his plump palm.

“So, Thomas didn’t take one. They must have joined together,” he muttered. “Hmm. Perhaps I can see the join.” Then he sat up. “That’s strange.”

The rock looked different. Before, it had looked like a lump of coal, but now he could see that the surface was covered in tiny pits; it was a more pleasing shape, too. When he stroked its surface, the rock definitely felt faintly squishy. A small voice deep in his brain was begging him to put the rock down. With a huge effort of will he eventually did so and mopped his florid face. When he checked the time he was shocked. It was 2 a.m.

The next morning, Thomas was awoken by a call. “It’s Max. Look, did you come round here this morning?”

“No, you just woke me up.”

Silence followed until finally Max said, “It’s gone. Both of them have gone.” He sounded upset.

“What? What are you talking about, Max? I’ll come round, okay?”

Max was waiting for him. “After you left there was only one meteorite in the bowl and now there are none.”

Thomas sounded unsure if he was being accused. “I haven’t been back to your house. I wanted to have one of the rocks but you said they were part of the scientific record, remember?”

“If you didn’t take it, Thomas, then where is it?”

“What do you think, Max?”

Max shook his head. “How should I know? Maybe they joined together somehow. I’ve got no idea, alright?”  He was close to tears.

The brothers decided to search the house. Max puffed up the stairs. He had not been upstairs for some while, as he slept on the ground floor and he found the physical effort too much. He searched the bedrooms first. They were mostly filled with piles of dusty, unopened Internet purchases and little else. Then he approached the bathroom and saw that the door was slightly ajar. He pushed it open and looked in cautiously. The room had no window and was dark. He reached up with some difficulty and pulled the light cord. There was a click but nothing else happened. Peering into the gloom, Max had the feeling that something was not right. Where the toilet bowl should be, there was something bigger. As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness he could make out the shape of a person sitting on the toilet.

“Who’s there?” he asked.

He listened. At first there was no sound, then after a moment, he distinctly heard breathing, and saw slight movement. Then a faint green light began to grow around the toilet. Max stood and stared, too scared to move. Now he could definitely make out the body of a person, but it was not sitting on the toilet as he had first thought. It seemed to be growing out of the bowl, like a plant in a pot. The lower half was a ridged green column, similar to a cucumber, which then merged into what resembled a human torso, albeit a green and spiny one. The figure had rudimentary arms and a stub of a head with a slit which pursed out as it breathed. Even as he watched, the slit trembled. Two dimples started to pucker inwards above it where eyes should be. Max felt a dull pain in his chest and realised he had not exhaled for some time. He finally did so, noisily. Immediately, the cucumber-thing shivered and the stubby head moved in his direction. Max fled from the room and locked the door behind him, then went down the stairs as fast as he dared.

“Thomas, I…” Words failed to form.

His brother looked at him with alarm. “What on earth’s the matter?”

“Oh, Thomas. There’s something awful upstairs. Something is growing out of the toilet. I’m sure it’s the meteorite.”

“Wait here whilst I go and look,” Thomas said, for he knew how Max could panic at the slightest thing. He gave Max a glass of water and then climbed the stairs. Max could hear the steps creak, complainingly under the weight.  He heard the bathroom door open and he strained to listen. He was sure he could hear a voice. Thomas must be talking to it. For a moment, he thought he could hear a second voice that rasped unpleasantly, but then the door closed. He sat and waited, heart thumping in his ears. It was a while before he heard the creak of the stairs once more. Thomas was coming down them surprisingly quickly, and he did not say a word to Max, but left the house immediately. Wondering what could have happened, Max laboriously climbed the stairs a second time, once more peering into the bathroom. Now, he could see that there was nothing in the toilet bowl, but on the floor lay something like a mucous coated fur-ball. But this particular fur-ball would fill a suitcase and an unpleasant, sweet smell made him choke. Starting to feel queasy, Max shut the bathroom door once more. With an awful sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he returned to the living room and sat down, wondering what to do.

The next morning, Thomas opened the door, and looked surprised. “Hello,” he said.

Max was nonplussed. “Er, hello, Thomas.”

“Thomas. That’s right,” Thomas murmured, and then he said “Come in.”

Max entered the house, peering about suspiciously. Thomas had returned to his chair where he had been reading. Max was shocked to see that it was a men’s magazine with a scantily-clad female on the cover. He looked around. His brother had been busy reorganising the room. His collections of books about trains and Victorian kitchens were piled up by the back door. The curtains were open so that sunlight flooded into the drab room. On the wall, Thomas had been testing different shades of paint.

“What’s going on?” Max demanded.

Thomas smiled. “Which colour do you like the best? I like the cream myself. Look, there are real floorboards under this green carpet. They’ll polish up nicely. I can expose the fireplace as well. Lovely old bricks.”

Max stared at him. Thomas seemed taller and he looked, he also looked slimmer. There was something else; he was not wearing his glasses. Thomas always wore glasses.

Thomas read his thoughts. “Contact lenses – Max. You should try them. Now, what’s the problem?”

Max remembered why he had come. “That thing in the toilet has gone, and there’s something revolting on the bathroom floor. You were there last one in there. What happened when you went up?”

Thomas shook his head sadly. “Max, listen to me. There was nothing in the room.”

Max felt annoyed. “There was. You were talking to it. You were there for ages.”

“I needed the toilet. I can’t help how long it takes. I always talk to myself when I’m on the toilet.”

“All right, explain the fur-ball thing.”

“Probably something that died up there months ago. Maybe a cat got in the house.”

“It was too big. Besides, you said there was nothing in the room. Didn’t you see a fur-ball?”

Thomas’s face was blank. “No, nothing like that. Let’s go back and have another look, shall we?”

Max felt deflated. He went back to his own house with Thomas, who bounded up the stairs. Max puffed behind him. When he got to the bathroom, Thomas was standing in the centre of the room, licking his lips and fingers.

“Look. Nothing at all. Come on, Max, admit it.”

Max said nothing. Thomas seemed to have forgotten all about the existence of the meteorites.  Max was a little frightened by his brother.

Over the next two months, Thomas changed. To start with, Max was startled to see his brother jogging past the house, wearing a vast red track suit. Thomas jogged further and faster every day and the weight seemed to fall away. Compared to Max he seemed so energetic. He ate all the time and he read book after book. Most surprising of all, were the women. When Max phoned to invite Thomas round, Thomas said that he was too busy. But when Max walked round to his brother’s house he could hear what was going on inside quite clearly.

Max was not stupid. He had watched the ‘body snatchers’ film and he was now certain that the giant fur-ball on the bathroom floor had been all that was left of the real Thomas when the cucumber-man took his place. Now the cucumber-man was living it up, enjoying Thomas’s life to the full. He was reading men’s magazines in his trendy terraced pied-a-terre with its pine floors and minimalist decorations, enjoying the company of attractive young ladies or hanging out at the fitness centre. His faded brown Morris Minor had been replaced by some ridiculous sports car. It was embarrassing. It was evil and embarrassing. No, not embarrassing. Evil and Annoying. Not evil, exactly.

It was unfair.

Max walked home, lost in thought. Unfair. The word had shaken him to the core. As soon as he arrived, he started to search for the meteorite. He looked everywhere. He was beginning to despair when at last he found it, jammed deep down the back of the cupboard in the kitchen, as if it had been trying to burrow its way out. He pulled the meteorite out of its prison, feeling the warmth and softness. He could feel life. As quickly as he could, he stumped up the stairs for the very last time and dropped the rock into the toilet bowl. Then he sat down on the floor, and waited for his cucumber-man to grow.